by Catriona Mills

Books We Think We Know

Posted 12 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been pondering that title since I first came up with the idea for this post (yesterday, though I’ve made it sound as though this is a magnum opus I’ve been working on for a decade) and I’m not entirely happy with it now. It sounds patronising.

But what I’ve been thinking about are books that we think we know all about because of the film adaptations, and I can’t think of a better way of putting it.

I’ve mentioned this idea before, back when I was excited about Steven Moffat’s Jekyll, and I still maintain that those are the big three: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

It’s not surprising, really: the Wikipedia page for Stevenson’s novella lists thirty-six stage plays, movies, musicals, television programmes, and video games based on the work (though it would never have occurred to me that Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor is based on Stevenson’s work. Then again, I’ve never seen either it or the Eddie Murphy remake).

The page for Dracula shows at least sixty-three adaptations (unless anyone wants to double-check my desultory counting), including Bouncy Castle Dracula, performed entirely in a bouncy castle, at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a film described as a “softcore lesbian pornographic semi-parodical film.” (Now that’s quite the number of adjectives. On the other hand, that should bring stragglers in from Google.)

The Frankenstein page lists forty-six movies, and I didn’t even count through the parodies and the television adaptations. The only one I remember is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which it really wasn’t), and I didn’t care for that one at all.

But, really, with at least 145 movies, stage plays, and television adaptations between them (not to mention countless books), is it any wonder that we all tend to think we know exactly what’s going to happen when we read the books?

This is, I suspect, an area where Pierre Bayard’s argument in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read could be misapplied: someone drawing their knowledge of Dracula and Frankenstein exclusively from the “cultural library” is just as likely—maybe more likely—to end up with an entirely skewed perspective on the novels.

Mind, it’s not that I think these films are a bad thing.

Okay, I did think that the recent BBC adaptation of Dracula with Marc Warren and Sophia Myles was a bad thing. A very, very bad thing. But my general point stands: having texts that have so thoroughly soaked into the general culture that they can be performed in bouncy castles at a fringe festival is a wonderful thing.

(That these canonical texts of English literature were written by a woman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman is a bonus.)

But they remain for me the standard of texts whose adaptations are more pervasive than the originals and yet don’t give a fair account of the original.

(Okay, I acknowledge that “fair account” is subject to change depending on the reader, and that my idea of an accurate adaptation—or an adaptation that it, at least, faithful in spirit to the original—is not going to be the same as that of other people. But I’m sticking with that solipsistic phrasing.)

They’re not unique, though.

I’ve mentioned before—in the middle of an Oz kick as I am—that I’m no great fan of the original film. And Katharine M. Rogers makes two excellent points in L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz about ways in which the film shifted the spirit of the book. She points out, firstly, that Judy Garland is too mature to play Baum’s conception of Dorothy: “She is not a small child who is accidentally transported to a strange land and longs for the security of home, but a dissatisfied teenager who is so critical of home that she runs away and has to learn [. . .] a moral lesson” (253). Secondly, she argues that presenting Dorothy’s adventure as a dream is a falsification (253), and I would agree with that wholeheartedly: Baum’s Oz is distinctly part of the geography of our world.

Rogers also emphasises that much of the Oz mythology can be traced to the film rather than the books, such as the extremely small stature of the Munchkins and the consequent adoption of the word into English as meaning an extremely short person (they are the same size as the child Dorothy in the books) and in the extreme witchiness of the Wicked Witch of the West (253).

Nick also mentioned, when we were discussing this last night, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which—to the best of our combined knowledge—was the first text to present Catwoman as a supernatural being, rather than a cat burglar. (I understand the recent Halle Berry film follows this pattern, but I’ve not seen it.)

Sherlock Holmes is another example, and I’m not even thinking of the recent adaptation with Richard Roxburgh, which showed Holmes injecting cocaine in a railway station on the way to Baskerville Hall, where the real Holmes would never have used cocaine in the middle of a case—he only used it as a mental stimulant when he had no cases on hand. The Basil Rathbone films, lovely as Basil Rathbone is (especially when he’s celebrating “pirate fashion”), bore little if any resemblance to the originals—especially since the final twelve, of fourteen, were set during World War Two and involved Nazis.

Will we never be free from inappropriate Nazis?

Even The Princess Bride, adapted by the same man who wrote the original novel, is a lighter, brighter version of itself. A fabulous film, but distinct from the book—and how could it not be, when the books is so heavily concerned with process of writing prose?

It’s not that these films are bad films. They’re not.

And it’s not that I somehow harbour resentment against people for enjoying films instead of reading the original books. I don’t.

But these are fascinating to me: films that owe their existence to books and, for all that the books in each of these cases (except maybe The Princess Bride) are widely reprinted, set on school and university syllabuses, and still read, the films have an extraordinary currency that makes them more potent than their progenitors.

Now I put it like that, Frankenstein doesn’t seem like such an odd choice to head the list.

But have I missed anything?

Share your thoughts [10]

1

Kirsty wrote at Oct 12, 12:15 PM

Tarzan is another one that people tend to believe they know about based on either Disney cartoons or the Johnny Weismuller/Maureen O’Hara films. Not that the original pulp fiction series is exactly contained, what with all the various adventures.

I’ve taught the first book quite a few times and students are always disappointed because they expect Tarzan and Jane get together. And hey, it turns out Tarzan was extraordinarily accomplished in the linguistic stakes, managing to pick up both English (by himself) and French on top of the Apes language. We definitely have the films to blame for the somewhat thick and monosyllabic Tarzan we’re most familiar with.

2

Catriona wrote at Oct 12, 01:09 PM

I didn’t think of Tarzan—I don’t think I’ve read any of the books, or any Burroughs at all, actually. But I do remember the Weismuller films from my childhood.

I’m not entirely surprised to hear that Tarzan is brighter than he appears in the movies, though. I don’t know that’s it’s deliberate, but there seems to be a parallel with Frankenstein there; the monster is far more literate and more eloquent than the Boris Karloff version would have us believe, and that version seems to be more enduring than Mary Shelley’s Milton-reading monster.

Although Tarzan is the hero, so it seems less problematic to have him eloquent—I can, sort of, see where people might have a problem with Frankenstein’s monster being persuasive.

Wasn’t Tarzan also the lost son of English aristocracy? Or is that another invention of the films? Because if he is aristocracy in Burroughs’s version, I’d also expect a more polished figure than the films imply: that whole Little Lord Fauntleroy idea that class will shine through regardless of the crudity of your upbringing still had a lot of currency at the end of the Edwardian period.

3

Kirsty wrote at Oct 12, 10:35 PM

Yes Tarzan was an aristocrat by birth in Burrough’s original and that’s essentially how he comes to teach himself English and just knows not to eat the African people he kills.

One of the things that is most interesting about that whole concept though is that the American origins of the story shine through, because even though his heritage is proved by the end, he chooses not to assert his birthright, effectively choosing meritocracy over aristocracy. And giving up Jane to his cousin.

Also the differences in Tarzan’s linguistic ability have a lot to do with the conditions of the sale of the film rights. Burroughs sold the character of Tarzan rather than the novella, so the film makers of the first talkie versions of Tarzan couldn’t use the words of the character. Plus the casting of Weissmuller, a non-actor, in the well-known films, pretty much cemented Tarzan as a character of few words.

And of course, earlier, I meant Maureen O’Sullivan rather than O’Hara—I don’t know why I always make that mistake. Some weird Gone with the Wind glitch?

4

Catriona wrote at Oct 13, 06:50 AM

Now I feel vindicated, since when Nick saw my last comment, he insisted the idea of Tarzan as an aristocrat was one that I’d drawn from the films—though that would have rather neatly proved your original point.

I’d read somewhere, years ago, that Weismuller was an athlete rather than an actor, and cast for his physique, not his ability. But I had no idea that the conditions of sale of the film rights had such a huge impact on the revisioning of the character. That’s fascinating!

There’s a strangely osmotic relationship between the Oz books and the film studios, as well; Baum, for example, wrote an early Oz film (somewhere around 1914, I think) that did poorly, but then recycled the material into a well-received later novel.

But I wonder what else is behind some of the changes made in these film adaptations.

5

Drew wrote at Oct 14, 09:05 PM

Winnie-the-Pooh. The Disney version of this world spectacularly fails to capture the magic of Milne’s creation which to my mind is not only an arogant blunder on Disney’s behalf but also little short of a literary crime.

The magic of world inside the 100 Acre Wood is created through the combination of both Milne’s writing and Shepard’s artwork and to me it’s almost like the Disney writers skim read their copies of the books with their eyes shut.

6

Catriona wrote at Oct 14, 09:29 PM

True—that’s another one I didn’t even think of. From my perspective, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen any of the Disney versions (maybe when I was a kid?), but they do motivate what Pooh Bear looks like inside my head.

(I had a T-shirt for years and years with the Disney Pooh on it—probably still have the remnants somewhere—but I’ll forgive that, since it was a fundraising shirt for a wildflower preservation society.)

It wouldn’t have been difficult, you’d think, to produce something the captured the spirit of the illustrations.

(But, then, I find that most adapted animated movies work either visually or at a script level, rather than both—hence my irritation with Howl’s Moving Castle.)

But there’s some sort of controversy or issue over the licensing of Pooh to Disney, isn’t there? I seem to remember some sort of issue around Christopher Milne’s daughter? Or grand-daughter? Perhaps when copyright was extended from fifty to seventy-five years? It’s a vague memory, and I can’t pin it down.

7

Drew wrote at Oct 15, 01:54 AM

I’m guessing that you’d also have to add Lord of The Ring to this list. Only the Fellowship truely managed to capture the spirit of the book, and the following two films took huge (and unwarranted) departures from the text. There are a vast number of people who only know the story from the films.

And on a similar theme, a friend has just lent me a copy of Beowulf and Grendel, the film shot in Iceland. Sounds wonderful, however, upon reading the back cover blurb I am somewhat disturbed by:
“When Beowulf meets Selma, a myserious and sensual witch …”

Recovered pages from the fire in Ashburnham House perhaps? Or maybe there are a few pages glued together in my (several) copies of the poem and I keep missing this part of the story.

8

Catriona wrote at Oct 15, 02:04 AM

Well, Beowulf is, I think, an interesting example. The recent animated version from the U. S. didn’t stick too closely to the storyline, either.

But I’m not convinced that Lord of the Rings meets the bill. There are a vast number of people who only know the story from the films, but I’m not sure that it follows that they think they know the books. The books are still widely read, too.

And the changes, while vast, weren’t, I think, on the scale of the changes that are made to, say, Dracula or Tarzan and haven’t had quite the same pervasive effect on the general understanding of the work.

Give it twenty years, and the Lord of the Rings books might make the list.

Perhaps I’m expressing myself badly, but I’m thinking of something other than simply a poor or widely variant adaptation: I’m thinking of a film, or a pool of films, that afterwards changes the entire general conception of the source material.

(Lord of the Rings may have done that, or may be in the process of doing that. The latter wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not seeing it happen right now, though.)

9

Drew wrote at Oct 15, 04:19 AM

yeah of course, you’re right about LoTR, I was getting bogged down in my own personal vendetta and forgot the nature of your original post. :)

10

Catriona wrote at Oct 15, 04:46 AM

But if I do another post like this in twenty years, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lord of the Rings was a prime candidate.

I was thinking about this in the car, after your last comment, and thought that it wouldn’t surprise me if the Narnia books went the same way. I think the first one didn’t do too well at the U. S. box office, if I recall correctly, but they’re still making them, and I’m not sure what sort of effect they’re having on young viewers.

But I wouldn’t like to think that, in twenty years’ time, there’s an entire generation who thinks that these films’ (allegedly: I’ve not seen them) particular brand of muscular Christianity reflects Lewis’s intentions.

(Of course, there was a focus on muscular Christianity in England, too, in the nineteenth century—and earlier, though that would be slightly different: it’s not just an American phenomenon. I want to say Charles Kingsley was one of the advocates of muscular Christianity—rather than the Edward Casuabon-style ascetic, scholarly Christianity—but I’d have to check that. My understanding, though, is that these films say far more about the nature of perceived crises of faith in America at the moment than they do about Lewis’s particular perspective.)

Comment Form

All comments are moderated and moderation includes a non-spoiler policy based on Australian television scheduling.

Textile help (Advice on using Textile to format your comments)
(if you do not want your details filled in when you return)

Categories

Blogroll

Monthly Archive

2012
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
2011
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
August
October
November
December
2010
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
October
December
2009
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December
2008
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December